“Why Science and Atheism Don’t Mix”. Really?

“Why Science and Atheism Don’t Mix”. Really? August 8, 2020

Aah, John Lennox. So long since I’ve considered you. I remember attending a talk you gave in Southampton years ago on your faith (I can’t remember the subject exactly, but it may have had connections to you being a mathematician).

Lennox has written recently in the Discovery Institute’s Evolution News & Science Today (excerpted from his new book), that wonderful repository for all things since and evolution… The title is “Why Science and atheism Don’t Mix2.

Or not.

At all.

Here it is:

Science proceeds on the basis of the assumption that the universe is, at least to a certain extent, accessible to the human mind. No science can be done without the scientist believing this, so it is important to ask for grounds for this belief. Atheism gives us none, since it posits a mindless, unguided origin of the universe’s life and consciousness.

Charles Darwin saw the problem. He wrote: “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy.”

Similarly, physicist John Polkinghorne says that the reduction of mental events to physics and chemistry destroys meaning:

Thought is replaced by electrochemical neural events. Two such events cannot confront each other in rational discourse. They are neither right nor wrong. They simply happen . . . The world of rational discourse dissolves into the absurd chatter of firing synapses. Quite frankly that cannot be right and none of us believes it to be so.

Polkinghorne is a Christian, but some well-known atheists also acknowledge the difficulty here.

Ah, could we be approaching an invocation of the Argument from Reason, something about which I have recently written?

Let’s see if I’m right.

The Abolition of Reason

In his book Mind and Cosmos, leading atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel says:

If the mental is not itself merely physical, it cannot be fully explained by physical science . . . Evolutionary naturalism implies that we should not take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism depends. 

That is, naturalism, and therefore atheism, undermines the foundations of the very rationality that is needed to construct or understand or believe in any kind of argument whatsoever, let alone a scientific one. In short, it leads to the abolition of reason — a kind of “abolition of man,” since reason is an essential part of what it means to be human.

Of course I’m right.

Atheism in no way leads to the abolition of reason any more than atheism leads to keeping tigers. Yes, you might be an atheist who keeps tigers, and you might be one who is devoid of reason, but it is not a necessary pathway.

There are plenty of arguments to rebut the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism in its many guises (such as the Argument from Reason). One of the simplest being that if evolution didn’t select for truth-finding mechanisms in the brain or in animals then animal life would just cease to exist. If we were unable to inductively rationalise, or see that certain things approached some kind of objective truth, then it would be game over. If a frog repeatedly had no connection between his senses and reality, then he wouldn’t be able to accurately stick his tongue out and catch flies, and learn from this to improve and work out ways to best catch the best flies. And so on.

Evolution adaptively selects for truth.

In terms of humans, evolution, for a whole host of reasons, has meant we have ended up with this brain that is amazing for problem-solving. We co-opt abilities to verbally communicate and use tools to transfer information over geography and generations, and build up our maps of the world, which are anchored in some meaningful way in the reality of sad world. To argue that evolution cares not a jot about truth and reasons correct in some agentic sense of evolution – it has no cares – but it does include mechanisms that have produced us, and we can reason both excellently and very badly, and also (on a good day) tell the difference between the two.

Alas, Lennox continues:

Not surprisingly, I reject atheism because I believe Christianity to be true. But that is not my only reason. I also reject it because I am a mathematician interested in science and rational thought. How could I espouse a worldview that arguably abolishes the very rationality I need to do mathematics? By contrast, the biblical worldview that traces the origin of human rationality to the fact that we are created in the image of a rational God makes real sense as an explanation of why we can do science.

Science and God mix very well. It is science and atheism that do not mix.

Oh dear.

Moths routinely fly into flames and kill themselves but not because they have evolved to do so. Well, in this case, we have evolution producing mechanisms that allow moths to use the moon to navigate, mate and reproduce. Fires and lights come along, and moths mistake these lights for the moon and a significant proportion end up dying as a result.

Humans evolved a number of cognitive characteristics that get misused and, well, religion is invented, explaining all sorts of then inexplicable things. Our tools, language and minds allow these falsehoods to maintain over geography and time. This certainly is an example of evolution not selecting for truth because abstract truth like this (as opposed to the locations of insect prey) is not essential for short term survival and reproduction.

So, in an odd sense, Lennox is right – or, at least, his thesis is sometimes right. Evolution has selected for religion in most societies of the world because of the benefits it can convey, particularly in the geographically tribalistic and ignorant contexts in which it was often set. The psychological, sociological and attributional benefits that religion has been able to afford many of its adherents (at least the ones in power positions) has meant it has maintained over time, despite them all being false. In terms of being a Christian, all other religions are false, and these false memetic networks of every other religion still need to be explained in terms of OmniGod, and the mental gymnastics necessary is far more contorted than for the atheist.

Look, reasoning exists – the ability to make connections in the abstract, to use logic. either this is best explained by evolution or is best explained by God.

But with each explanation, we must also explain the worst misuses of it: the moth flying to its death. With an OmniGod, who apparently cares so much that he has sacrificed himself to himself to sit on his own right hand in heaven for eternity, this must all still be explained. So, he cares, right? He cares enough to create reasoning for us to create…atomic bombs, chemical warfare, international conflict, mass murderers and serial killers, rapists, torture devices and torturers and so on, ad nauseam.

Naturalism perfectly explains this and one does have to mentally gerrymander in order to fit moral evaluations into the analysis and theory. There are all sorts of systems and mechanisms that get co-opted, under an evolutionary and naturalistic understanding of the universe, that end up looking like all sorts of different manifestations of moths flying into flames.

But for the theist?

Theodicy after theodicy after theodicy after skeptical theism because, you know, OmniGod has to survive the rational onslaught.

The fact that Christianity and Islam and Hinduism exist, side by side, as competing worldviews, that murder, warfare, rape, atomic bombs and so on is much better explained as moths flying into candles than OmniGod, who supposedly has the best intentions and the love of all humans at heart.

Science, reason, and atheism are far, far more compatible than science, reason and Christianity.



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